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Philip Metres’ first full-length collection of poetry asks the reader (and attempts itself) to “see the earth again,” as the book’s epigraph from Stevens suggests. Implicit in this “seeing” is the conscious act of witnessing that informs much of the book, be it witness to the hardships of poverty in Russia during the post-Soviet period, the Israeli occupation of Palestine, or the often-overlooked American protests against the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. More than simply “political poetry,” however, Metres explores the extent to which language itself is bound up in the struggle to articulate an adequate response to the world around us. The problems of language are two-fold, he seems to suggest, arising not only from its inherent incommensurability but also from its reliance on and origins in the very authoritarian systems his poetry testifies against. Language, Metres says, is
written over our bodies each of us
owns a few letters this unread sentence tense
It is a sentence, quite literally, because of the physical and syntactical form it takes, but more importantly it is a punishment, an obligation, a duty. Yet if the act of witnessing is the ultimate responsibility of poetry in a time when “you can’t not speak,” Metres understands the difficulty in maintaining an effective poetic (indeed personal!) identity in the face of what Jim Carroll calls “an immense power [that] cannot be terrorized... invulnerable to a slip of madness.”
The book opens with the title poem from Metres’ 2004 chapbook Primer for Non-Native Speakers (Kent State UP). It is a poem (slightly re-worked in this new book) which foregrounds the concern with language as a vessel to bear witness.
a heavy winter coat,
tight in the shoulders
Look, I lack,
says my language
But if language is flawed it is because both the human instrument through which it arises and the world it attempts to describe are similarly flawed. Given this impasse the poem (and indeed the entire book) takes a refreshing turn when the physical world itself is given voice in an attempt at the kind of commensurability Wittgenstein precluded. Metres describes
of a slammed door
of an outraged woman’s fist.
By grounding the language in the physical world, the poet attempts to reclaim its legitimacy as a form of witness free from socio-political influence. Later in the poem Metres gives another gesture toward the instability of language when he writes
This is a label. What is it?
A libel, a labia, a lust, alleluia.
It is a couplet that delights in the physical pleasure of language as an oral (and aural) medium, but that also introduces fractal ideas of slippage and homophony to indicate the liquid nature of language.
The book itself is divided into three untitled sections that roughly correspond with Russia, the Middle East, and America, and explore, respectively, problems of translation, identity, and love. To assign these issues to only one section, however, is to miss the way in which the book’s themes overlap and double back on themselves to create a rich and complex statement on the possibilities of poetry as a form of witness.
Based on Metres’ time living in Russia in the early 90’s, the book’s first section takes up the difficulties of language vis-à-vis the problem of translation, of being
Outside in a country with no word
The translator of two previous books of Russian poetry by Lev Rubinstein and Sergey Gandlevsky, Metres focuses on the “gaps” in translation as a way of indicating language’s inherent limits, for lack of a better term. He writes that he came to Russia because he heard poetry mattered there, but the first section paints a human landscape of hunger and poverty, bread lines and inflating rubles in which poetry is not only unnecessary but perhaps even decadent. The poem ‘Days of 1993’ ends with an image of the Pushkin Square McDonald’s, often the only place for blocks to sit inside during the winter; Metres describes “traffic streaming between poet and golden arches,” a scene which points not only to Western capitalism’s (and poetry’s) inroads into the former Soviet Union but more importantly the Russian disregard for both forms of excess.
Yet still the poet wrestles with the attempt to say, to explain, to see the earth. “Yuri,” Metres writes to Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space,
I’ve yet to see
your spaceship, your mythic, your extra-
ordinary frame outside the frame of things
In this phrase that almost became the book’s title (“I’ve yet to see your spaceship”), Metres articulates the book’s central concern: the problem of subjectivity, of getting “outside” the reality and the authority one seeks to describe in order to frame it anew, as Joyce did with Ireland. Similarly, later in the section, Metres writes about a trip to Elk Island (actually not an island) in the northern suburbs of Moscow, describing
islets the eye lets in
and the islets that inlet the eye
The passage not only alludes to the problems of “seeing,” the difficulty of witness, but also displays Metres’ ability to sustain triumphant streams of rhyme and homophony in a manner influenced by both hip-hop music and Modernist ideas regarding language and form as sites of stable meaning the world itself cannot provide.
Post-Soviet Russia, for obvious reasons, seems perhaps the most apt place and time in recent history to explore issues of identity, yet Metres carries these questions over into the book’s second section as well, a section that deals primarily with his Lebanese background (his last name, as the book’s back cover states, was “Abourjaili” before Ellis Island’s own translation) and government impositions on that identity. “In England I was French,” he writes,
In France I was Moroccan.
In Russia I was Chechen. In Greece, they read my olive skin
as theirs, could not believe when I couldn’t understand.
In a later poem, ‘The Ballad of Skandar’, Metres talks of his great-grandfather, an Arab Christian, a “soldier for the occupier.” Both point to the alienation of the poet in his own land and the difficulties in articulating a statement of identity; moreover, the latter poem’s ominous and powerful conclusion suggests the similar problem of maintaining an Arab identity in post-9/11 America. Metres writes of his Lebanese ancestor coming to the United States, of Skandar’s hopes for “freedom...
where water flows from every spout―
or so the story goes.
The deep skepticism here toward American culture and politics finds its echo in the third section’s ‘For the Fifty (Who Made PEACE with Their Bodies)’, a poem about the Baring Witness movement against the War on Terror. In it, the poet writes of nude women forming
the shape of a word yet to come
the rolled rags
of their bodies seen from a cockpit
Metres describes a demonstration not pornographic in nature, yet intended to elicit a response as if it were, a response of shock, ironically (and hypocritically), from the same American culture of sex and violence
where flesh is marked
& measured in market
The demonstration, moreover, is itself a testament to poetry’s tenuous efficacy as a form of protest in the American socio-political scene; just as Metres, in an attempt to reclaim the power of language, embodies his words in physical objects and landscapes, so too is the word “peace” literally embodied in these women as if it is the only way to get their point across. The fact that the women are seen “from a cockpit” gives the poem a threatening undertone of militarism and violence, as does their description as “rolled rags,” conjuring up as it does images of black body bags and corpses. The real skepticism, however, comes at the end of the poem when Metres writes
It’s no use...
trace with fingertips
the blind dark rooms
of what we are, houses
of breath, sheltered & unshelled.
The hopelessness of that first line is accentuated by the closing imperative tone that in turn underscores the distance (literally and figuratively) between poetry and the culture of violence it testifies against. Despite the shock and awe of the protest of nude women, at the end of day no one is bombing them.
But if the problem with American culture and authority is that no one pays attention to the artists, the opposite is true in Metres’ Middle-Eastern poem ‘Installation/Occupation’ which closes out the second section and is perhaps the book’s strongest piece. The poem begins
there was a time you couldn’t paint red white
green or black could be a flag imagine
you couldn’t paint poppies or watermelon
now you can paint all you want
The first line break, along with the insinuation that art has little relevance in the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, links the poem thematically to the American government’s restrictions of civil liberties following 9/11 and, more generally, American culture’s disregard for poetry; this linkage becomes more pronounced when the reader discovers that the next poem in the book is in fact the first poem to deal explicitly with American politics.
The poem goes on to describe cars that had been crushed by Israeli tanks and the process by which they became, in the hands of the speaker, their own form of art.
so in a field we paved a road to nowhere & placed
the crushed in a column as if in a rush hour
line of traffic we had an opening at our piece
a huge party on our road & then walked home
What happens next, though, turns the poem (and indeed the book’s entire arc) in a new and unexpected direction, as a column of tanks pulls up to the “art installation”
& ran over the exhibit over & over
again backwards and forwards then shelled it
& for good measure christened it with piss
there’s the story of Duchamp
once the workmen installing his exhibit
dropped a crate of paintings the floor
shattering the glass Duchamp ran over
thrilled now he said now it is complete
The poem’s surprising and moving ending, rather than dwelling on the self-pity of the artist, instead makes him complicit with the government in the creation of art, a kind of symbiotic relationship in which each side needs the other to survive, to define itself against. In this way, the inextricability of the two sides figures as, if not mutually assured destruction, in fact a perverse form of hope. This complicity is echoed in a later poem’s description of a photo of Hiroshima (which itself echoes Lowell’s “commercial photograph show[ing] Hiroshima boiling over a Mosler safe”). In it Metres writes
Here the panorama lies
whole, defeated, splayed
wingless on the wall―
the modest houses
mere footprints, suggestions
of foundations, trees
stripped to the dead trunk
It is, quite obviously, a bawdy, almost pornographic photograph that is, however vulgar, a form of art made (if not equally) at least partially complicit in the act of violence itself. “Under a totalitarian state,” Metres has said, “poetry thrives,” and To See the Earth enacts why this is the case, engaging with the language in an attempt to wrest it away from authority and use it as a legitimate (though perhaps ultimately doomed) form of witness.
If a mood of skepticism permeates the book, Metres does offer a tempered optimism and love. The final poem, ‘Bat Suite’ is a touching meditation on the poet’s daughter and the fragility of life. He says
There is no poetry in this:
how once, addled by lack
of sleep, my wife carrying our daughter down-
stairs, tripped on a vacuum’s
umbilicus, and tumbled,
Adele falling out of our arms―
the sickening crack
of her head on the landing.
The no sound.
By contrasting the instances of sound and “no sound,” Metres emphasizes the inability of language to articulate even the strongest human emotions. And yet To See the Earth succeeds quite remarkably in embodying the struggle to articulate, to witness, to see and hear the poetry in every human action and to give voice to it though it is ultimately, as he concludes the final poem, “a suite above our human octaves.”
Christopher Kempf is from Fort Wayne, Indiana. He is an MFA student in poetry at Cornell University, and his work has appeared in The Comstock Review, Spindrift, and Prairie Margins. He can be reached at cmk95[ât]cornell.edu